Medication-Assisted Treatment For Heroin And Opioid Addiction

Methadone, Buprenorphine (Suboxone), and Naltrexone (Vivitrol) are the three main medications used to treat an opioid addiction. Medication-Assisted Treatment has been proven to have higher success rates than other forms of addiction treatment.

Opioid addiction has become a widespread concern throughout the U.S. In 2016, a reported 2,591,000 Americans had a substance abuse disorder involving either prescription pain medication or heroin, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine. This equates to about 12 percent of all Americans with a substance abuse disorder.

Seeing a friend or family member suffer from an addiction can be challenging and confusing. Opioid addiction is a complicated disease, and it can be hard to know what you can do to help. Understanding the various treatment methods can help you find the best path for your loved one. One highly effective course of treatment is medication-assisted treatment, which is the use of medications as well as behavioral therapy to treat a substance abuse disorder.

How Does Medication-Assisted Treatment Work?

Medication-assisted treatment is considered by many doctors to be one of the most recommended courses of treatment. MAT is two-fold; it requires both the use of medication which helps tame cravings and impulses to use opioids, as well as behavioral therapy.

There are a number of medications that can be used during MAT. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, three common medications used include:

Methadone Treatment

Methadone helps with opioid withdrawal in two ways. First, it relieves the pain often associated with opioid withdrawal, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Second, it disables the euphoric effect of opioid drugs.

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Patients can only receive methadone under the supervision of their physicians. Each prescription is carefully tailored to each individual patient, and dosages can be adjusted one or more times throughout the course of treatment. After a period of time, when the physician feels confident that the patient will be able to administer the medication consistently and according to plan, the patient can be permitted to take methadone home between program visits.

Buprenorphine (Suboxone) Treatment

Buprenorphine helps by lowering the euphoric effect associated with opioid use, according to SAMHSA. Over the course of a sustained treatment program with buprenorphine, the euphoric effect reaches a cap, and even with increased dosages, the patient won’t be able to achieve the same euphoria they once had with opioids.

Buprenorphine is distributed under several names, including:

  • Suboxone
  • Subutex
  • Probuphine
  • Zubsolv
  • Bunavail

One key advantage of buprenorphine is the fact that it can be prescribed and dispensed in physician offices, whereas methadone typically requires a highly structured and supervised environment. Since patients can more easily access buprenorphine than methadone, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval of the drug has significantly increased treatment access for people suffering opioid addictions.

Naltrexone Treatment

Unlike methadone and buprenorphine, which are opioid agonists that produce similar euphoric feelings as opioid drugs, naltrexone blocks these effects. Naltrexone binds and blocks the opioid receptors in the brain. Because of this, there’s no risk of misuse of naltrexone, and some have reported that this treatment option helps reduce cravings, according to SAMHSA. Additionally, if a person relapses during the course of treatment, naltrexone prevents the person from experiencing any high. Naltrexone is also used to treat alcohol dependency.

Another difference between naltrexone and the opioid agonists methadone and buprenorphine is that medical professionals aren’t required to undergo any training before prescribing naltrexone. Any health care provider who is licensed to prescribe medication can prescribe this treatment option. However, the patient must go through between 7 and 10 days of detoxification before beginning naltrexone treatment.

Benefits Of Medication-Assisted Treatment

MAT is considered one of the best courses of treatment for people who have an opioid dependency for a number of reasons:

Individualized Treatment Plans

Different people may have varying experiences with their substance abuse disorders, so it’s important to tailor treatment to the individual, rather than prescribe a one-size-fits-all treatment path. Since medication prescriptions can be revised throughout treatment, and because the medication is coupled with behavioral therapy, two patients’ MAT paths can be very different yet still effective.

Safe For Pregnant Women

MAT is also particularly beneficial to pregnant or nursing women who suffer from an opioid addiction. Methadone in particular is commonly prescribed to pregnant women being treated for opioid addiction.

Withdrawing from opioids can be an incredibly painful process that often involves fever and extreme nausea. Muscle contractions are common during the withdrawal process as well, which can be dangerous or deadly to an unborn child. For this reason, a treatment course that lessens these effects can ultimately be the safest. Methadone has shown to be a safe option for pregnant or breastfeeding women.

Little research has been conducted on buprenorphine’s effect on pregnant or nursing women. As such, it’s less commonly prescribed to these patients than methadone. The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism also advised that patients who are pregnant not use naltrexone.

Lower Risk Of Contracting HIV/AIDS

A common concern for people using needles to take drugs such as heroin is exposure to bloodborne pathogens such as HIV or Hepatitis, according to SAMHSA. MAT reduces the risks contracting these diseases because it lowers their cravings and makes it less likely that they will relapse.

Side Effects Of Medication-Assisted Treatment

Though there are plenty of positive aspects of MAT for patients who have an opioid dependency, there are some side effects associated with the drugs used in treatment. It’s important that patients understand what these side effects are so they can report them to their doctor as soon as possible.

Side Effects Of Methadone

People who use methadone in their course of treatment could experience reactions like swelling in the face, lips or tongue, hives or a rash. Additionally, they could experience heart-related side effects such as a racing heart or chest pain. Lightheadedness, difficulty breathing or swallowing and hallucinations can also occur. Finally, methadone can be addictive, which is why use is regulated so strictly.

Side Effects Of Buprenorphine

Buprenorphine’s side effects are very similar to those of opioid drugs themselves. Patients might experience fever, muscle aches, nausea, cravings, trouble sleeping or irritability. However, it’s ceiling effect lowers the chances of a patient becoming dependent on this medication, and it’s long-lasting effects means some may not need to use it daily.
Side Effects Of Naltrexone

Patients prescribed naltrexone might experience feelings of nervousness, upset stomach, headaches, muscle pain or problems sleeping. These are all normal and don’t mean the person’s body is negatively reacting to the drug.

However, there are some side effects that should be discussed with a doctor, including skin irritations at the sight of injection, allergic pneumonia and symptoms of liver disease, which could point to liver injury.

Medication-Assisted Treatment Availability

Although MAT has been touted as one of the best treatment options for people with opioid addictions, it’s not always immediately available to patients. According to the Surgeon General’s 2016 Report, only about 10 percent of people who have opioid addictions receive any sort of specialized treatment plan. Additionally, the report noted that evidence-based treatment plans such as MAT are largely under-utilized and some health care professionals have little faith in them, despite evidence showing how effective they are.

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The number of patients who have heroin dependencies who were prescribed MAT fell from 35 percent in 2002 to 28 percent in 2010, according to SAMHSA. One major cause for the reduction is misconceptions about MAT. A lack of training on drugs like methadone or buprenorphine also contributes to this low adoption rate.

Find The Right Opioid Treatment Program Today

People who suffer from opioid addictions must be able to access the treatment course that’s right for them, even if it’s not immediately available in your community. For many, a Medication-Assisted Treatment plan may be the best way for them to recover from their addiction.

If someone you know struggles with opioid addiction, it’s important that they find help. We can help by assisting in finding the right treatment course and rehabilitation site. Contact us at to learn more about how we can help you and your loved one find relief from opioid addiction.

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